It was fairly obvious that co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis decided that their follow-up to the original "Cars
" (2006) -- which Lasseter also-co-directed -- needed to broaden its scope beyond the small town of Radiator Springs. While I found the original as touching and charming as anything else Pixar has done, many found the original subpar, and my guess is that was at least in part due to the provincial nature of the story. Much of Pixar's magic comes from their wondrous ability to create a world and then take us on a dazzling tour throughout it. The world of "Cars" was indeed small, but the good news is that by contrast, the world of "Cars 2" is as exotic and worldly as any James Bond film.
And I say that because "Cars 2
" opens like a James Bond film, and this is quite intentional. The story as a whole can be summed up with the word "spy-jinx," and the opener involving Sir Michael Caine as a sleek, British super agent is pure 007 in tone, style, and the way in which it sets up a diabolical conspiracy involving Big Oil's willingness to kill in order to strangle in the crib a promising alternative fuel.
From there we are sent back to Radiator Springs, where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has returned home from a successful tour of the racing circuit for some relaxation and to hang out with his best friend Tow Mater (a superb Larry the Cable Guy). One thing leads to another, most of it due to Mater's buffoonery, and before you know it, Mater and Lightning are touring Europe for a World Grand Prix and Mater has been mistaken for an undercover secret agent who holds the key to the Big Oil conspiracy.
The story itself is disappointing, far below Pixar's usual imaginative and emotional standards, which is a disappointment. The emotional wallop is lacking due to a weak, predictable subplot involving the friendship between Lightning and Mater. Laziest of all is the Big Oil bad guy. You might have been able to forgive the preachier moments if there was any imagination at work. Big Oil, really? I dislike big business almost as much as big government, but what I really dislike is lazy storytelling.
What's important to remember, though, is that we are grading this sequel on a somewhat unfair curve. Pixar has set the bar so high it's a miracle they've leapt it as many times as they have. That this one falters by comparison is a fact, but the story still holds your attention and so do the amazing visuals.
No Pixar film has ever looked so lush, and the many action scenes and overall direction are all first-rate. You also get a large helping of that marvelous Pixar world. "Cars 2" is set in a number of gorgeous cities, and there's great fun to be had in seeing how they remain familiar with only machines as residents and no humans. What till you get a load of the Pope and his Pope-mobile.
Another change from its predecessor is that the lead character is not Lightning McQueen. Mater is the star, as is Caine. Both give marvelous voice performances but are let down by the weak story and jokes that never really take off.
"Cars 2" is worth a look, and if you have kids and hate Big Oil, it's well worth a purchase. Either way, you don't want to miss the brilliant "Toy Story" included with the film.